Sunday, June 28, 2009

Innovation Crosses the Spectrum?

My Capitalist Pals at Money Morning remind me once again about what I used to like about conservatism. In a piece by Shah Gilani, the big worry is that Obama is a state capitalist, which is often used as a technical synonym for Soviet communist. What gives, I asked myself - these guys aren't Cheneyites. Here's a key passage.

Regulatory reforms must ensure that free markets remain free. Part of what’s necessary is to reform the tendencies of firms to overdo the concept of economies of scale. Bigger isn’t always better if it crowds out the processes of creative destruction, the drain in the tub that can overflow and undermine the floor and foundation of democratic capitalism.
It was big banks, big super-regional banks, big investment banks and big mortgage originators that deposited us into the economic sinkhole in which we’re presently mired. Community banks and small loan originators didn’t conceive of the weapons of mass destruction, but they were forced to compete with the big brothers of business by engaging in many of the same practices and investments as a way to remain competitive or be destroyed by the sprawl of bigger, bolder, and badder brethren. Why not disallow firms to get so big they swallow or destroy all competition?

For this kind of conservatism, markets were about supporting the small innovator who would be otherwise crushed by the rich, the Ivy-League well-connected, the lackeys of the presidential palace. Gilani correctly sees Obama financial policy as protecting the bigs at any cost, which he (also correctly) sees as not only rewarding failure, but rewarding mediocrity.

This is the pro-market liberalism of the late 18th and early 19th-century. It produces hostility to government that modern liberals, socialists, and marxists cannot accept. But this classical liberalism is completely right about threat posed to innovation and equity by huge size and state nepotism. Obama's big bank bailouts look as nepotistic as humanly possible given popular anger about the obvious problems - in terms of both justice and efficiency - with giving so much to the top (AIG, AIG's counterparties, bank holding companies, et.c) and almost nothing to the public (very limited mortgage help, etc.)

Local, small, networked, innovative - these should be terms that classical liberals (market "conservatives") and various kinds of socialists should come together around. State capitalism was an authoritiarian corruption of socialism that was neither an egalitarian worker's state nor an efficient corporatism. Most of the left hated the latter almost as much as the right did, so why not start doing more with this?

One historical note: the state's favoritism toward gigantic, nepotistically well-connected monopolies got the early middle-class to side with workers during the French Revolution, and for a while in 1848. Gilani's kind of outcry might signal the start of a political realignment of the middle-classes, one which in the past has been revolutionary.

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